Of all the treats of my hungry childhood, none was more special than potato latkes; which is not to say that they were the best. Like so many Eastern-European Jewish treats, they are flavored by memory and loss, their grim blandness forgotten in the nostalgic haze. But what a spectacle they were! Forget the gross and greasy “potato pancakes” served by deli restaurants, frequently with a phlegm-colored bowl of applesauce and a dollop of sour cream. Those hockey pucks have little to do with my grandmother’s latkes, which were if nothing else, thin and delicate, with lacy edges that faded away to nothingness.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot more lately. In the grave over thirty years, she was my first food muse and the woman who taught me how to eat. Not to cook; there was never any question of who would be cooking in that kitchen. My job was to bother her, tell her jokes, whine about how hungry I was, make her tall glasses of lipton iced tea mix with Sweet n Low, mixing up the flavor crystals with a tablespoon, and generally making a pest of myself. Nana could be counted upon to make minute steaks, won tons, eggs, chicken, hamburgers – really anything that you could want. But latkes were only made on special occasions.
Why? It’s simple – even for as tireless and loving a cook as my grandmother, the dish is intensely laborious. First you have to stand there rubbing potato after potato against a spindly box grater, her hands getting wet and sweaty and covered with potato goo as she labored at pureeing them on the dullest of the thing’s four sides. She added an egg to hold it all together, a little flour to give it substance, and a pinch of baking powder to make it light. There was a good amount of salt and pepper in there, too.
What made the latkes such an epitome of selfless, grandmotherly cooking, though, wasn’t the painful process of grating the potatoes; it was the fact that she never got to actually eat them. You need to have a lot of oil in the pan for the latkes to float around in, which means that you can only make five or at most six at a time. If there are six people at the table (my grandfather, quiet and handsome; my ebulient mother; my father and I; my aunt barbara and her witty husband Steven, smoking brown Benson and Hedges cigarettes, and my cousin Geoffrey, a sweet-faced six year old) then that means they get one latke each. Also, the latkes are only really good right out of the pan. So Nana has to stand there and make the latkes, and bring the pan to the table, and keep refilling the platter. Did she ever get to eat one? I was so fixated on the golden medallions, with their creamy insides and fractal edges, that I never bothered to wonder. But I do now. Sadly, I can’t make them for her.